The amazing art of using old Hindi film songs to steer contemporary stories 

The amazing art of using old Hindi film songs to steer contemporary stories

When Wamiqa Gabbi feverishly dances to Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani, the youth anthem of the 1970s, in Vishal Bhardwaj’s whimsical spy thriller Khufiya, she not only takes us inside the emotional architecture of Charu but also echoes a cinematic idea whose time has come. A closet fan of Bollywood music, Charu is happy in her domestic bliss, and, unmindful of the shenanigans of her intelligence officer husband Ravi and his mother, she rolls a joint and impulsively gyrates to the electric Kishore Kumar number from Jawani Diwani (1972) in front of surveillance cameras mounted by Ravi’s colleague Krishna (Tabu).

A hardened intelligence officer, Krishna goes soft on a female agent; perhaps a wife who discovers that she is gay. The R.D. Burman composition and its picturisation not only bring out the lively spirit of Charu despite her routine existence but also tell us how a seemingly mundane activity of spying can turn an agent into a voyeur. The Anand Bakshi again makes a fleeting appearance in the second half as well but by then Charu has evolved into a different person. She is doing the same chores of cooking, taking care of her mother-in-law, and sending her son to school but now her spirit has wilted. So, she simply shrugs and switches off the song.

Wamiqa Gabbi in ’Khufiya’
| Photo Credit:
Courtest of Netflix

Taking forward the tradition of our poetic epics and folk theatre, songs have been an integral part of the screenplay of Hindi films. Often films age but their songs don’t. They become an independent entity whose fragrance continues to lyrically inform our lives. Put in a new context, the text acquires a new meaning.

At a time when Western influence, attention deficit audience, and lack of inspiring situations have restricted the role of lyricists, influential filmmakers, and screenwriters are increasingly turning to popular old songs as a narrative device to augment the emotional depth of films and web series. Once a one-off flight of imagination, it is becoming a trend, proving to be a powerful tool that uses the audience’s familiarity with the song, particularly the verse, to its advantage. They provide their stories a poetic twist and characters an emotional heft, something dialogues fail to lend. Often playing against their expectation, the song becomes a surprise ingredient that spices up the screenplay.

Like in Atlee’s Jawan, when Shah Rukh Khan breaks into Shakeel Budayuni’s Beqrar Karke Humein Yun Na Jaiye, the soothing Hemant Kumar melody from Bees Saal Baad, in the midst of a violent train hijack. It reminds one of the early experiments in Shaitan (2011) where Bejoy Nambiar repurposed S.D. Burman’s serene Khoya Khoya Chand (from Kala Bazar, 1960) to accentuate a bloody shoot-out.

In the age of nostalgia, the tool provides delicious cross-generational linkages as we discovered recently in Sujoy Ghosh’s Jaane Jaan where Kareena Kapoor Khan, playing a former night club dancer Maya, who has de-hyphenated her past from her present, jives to Aa Jaan-e-Jaan, a rare Lata Mangeshkar cabaret from Intaqam (1969) in karaoke during a make or break scene in the film. Caught in an inevitable situation, Rajendra Krishna’s lyrics echo Maya’s quandary. Moreover, visuals of Helen dancing on a screen in the background, provide a true blast from the past experience.

Ritesh Batra’s style of storytelling is much more minimalist as there is a lot that is unsaid in his films. When he places hit songs of commercial films in his narratives, they not only create an exhilarating contrast but there is also a soul connection between the two. In The Lunchbox (2013), Ela (Nimrat Kaur), a fan of Bollywood songs, listens to Sameer’s Mera Dil Bhi Kitna Paagal HaiYe Pyar Tumhi Se Karta Hai from Saajan (1991). In the romantic drama, Pooja (Madhuri Dixit) falls in love with a poet called Sagar played by Sanjay Dutt over letters like Nimrat does in The Lunchbox with Irrfan Khan who is named Saajan in the film. The poet in Saajan becomes conscious of his handicap when he finds Pooja is so beautiful and without telling her tries to step away from her life. Similarly, Saajan in The Lunchbox moves out of Ela’s life when he discovers that she is much younger than him.

Irrfan Khan in ‘The Lunchbox’

Irrfan Khan in ‘The Lunchbox’

In Photograph (2019), which has political undertones beneath the calm surface, Ritesh uses Mohammed Rafi’s number Tumne Mujhe Dekha Hokar Meharban, written by Majrooh Sultanpuri, from Vijay Anand’s Teesri Manzil tocreate a poignant culmination of an unlikely relationship between a street side photographer Rafi played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and a chartered accountant Miloni essayed by Sanya Malhotra. The film pays a subtle tribute to the theme of romance transcending the class barrier that was common in the 1960s and 1970s. Ritesh names his protagonist Rafi after the revered playback singer. In another inspired move while writing to his grandmother, who is keen on Rafi getting married, the photographer wonders what name should he give to his imagined girlfriend. Lata Mangeshkar’s title song of Noorie floats in the air and Rafi finds his answer.

Old songs can prove effective in creating an impactful alternative to flashbacks like we saw in the web series Aarya wherein director Ram Madhvani uses Anand Bakshi’s Bade Achche Lagte Hain (Balika Vadhu, 1976), to keep alive memories of Tej (Chandrachur Singh) even after his death. It is a song that Tej loved to sing for Aarya (Sushmita Sen). So, after he is killed and Aarya takes charge, the song, originally rendered by Amit Kumar, helps her and her kids cope with the grief of losing a lovely partner and a devoted father who was involved in a dangerous business.

Mr. Ram drew inspiration from Sriram Raghavan who used Mera Gora Ang Leile (Bandini, 1963) in Johnny Gaddar (2007). In the film, Dharmendra keeps the memory of his dead wife alive by playing the Gulzar creation on tape over and over again.

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One of the obvious uses of evergreen melodies is to establish a specific period or convey the mood of a particular era like Vikram Motwane and Varun Grover efficiently did in Sacred Games with Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke (Do Bigha Zamin, 1953) and Main Na Bhoolonga (Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, 1974).

Sometimes, a forgotten gem finds a new life. One of the many joys of Anurag Basu’s Ludo (2020) is watching the mercurial gangster Sattu Bhai Pankaj Tripathi) listening to O Betaji, O Babuji Kismat Ki Hawa Kabhi Naram Kabhi Garam as he goes about his criminal activities.

The C. Ramachandra composition livens up the anthology where four strands are driven by the quirk of fate. One of Sattu’s victims was watching the song when he was silenced forever. Originally part of Albela (1951), the Rajendra Krishna song sets the tone for the Netflix film that muses over the purpose of life and death.

The in-betweenness of a relationship can only be described in verse. Aanand L. Rai effectively employed Ja Ja Ja Bewafa (Aar Paar, 1954) in Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) to depict a husband-wife story where cracks have developed but they are still connected. Played on the radio in the background when Tanu (Kangana Ranaut) gets drunk Majrooh Sultanpuri’s simple lines Ja Ja Ja Bewafa, Kaisa Pyar, Kaisi Preet Re, Tu Na Kisi Ka Meet Re have so much love and pain. The O.P. Nayyar composition helped the audience feel the turmoil Tanu, who till then appeared a little crazy, is in.

A still from ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani’

A still from ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani’

That using old songs in new films is an art becomes evident when Karan Johar goes for the overkill in Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahaani. The only time it worked for me was when Golu who has been reduced to sweetmeat by the halwaibusiness family breaks into Indeevar’s Gup Chup Gup Chup (Karan Arjun, 1995) in the midst of a family matrimonial meetup.

As a producer-director, he can indulge but for those working on a tight budget, referencing their old favourites could create a hole in the pocket for the pricing by music labels is often restrictive. Nobody could deny monetisation of timeless songs but there has to be a fair game where both the creative and business sides of cinema could strike a chord.